Sydney-based vocalist, songwriter and producer Rainbow Chan stopped by Information + Cultural Exchange recently as the week’s New Age Noise production workshop mentor. While there, she spoke to us about the complexities of identity, the pressures of being a representative for other Asian musicians and some of the musicians she’s really excited about.

Stream Rainbow’s new record, Pillar, here.

Image by Hyun Lee

Grace: When I listened to Pillar, I felt a sense of melancholy about the feeling of psychological fragmentation when you feel like you’re between two worlds that is apparent in your work – attempting to reconcile disparate identities and ways of being. Did you experience any challenges in creating a concrete work about ephemeral elements – time, the evocation of memory and the multiplicity of truth?

Rainbow: Yes! I think it’s always going to be a challenge because you’re coming to it from multiple perspectives – whether that is between languages or between generations. There are songs on the album that are collaborations with older women in my community, and learning from them. Then re-imagining that and making a club track out of traditional folk songs, and then negotiating the ethics around that and the responsibilities you have of making sure that everything’s kosher.

Definitely tackling those issues are challenging but the effect has been so much more rewarding because when you’re dealing with things that are full of tension, and acknowledging that tension not as a finite resolution but as a state of being that you just accept – there’s a freedom to that, and then it also generates more conversation. Rather than things being final and absolute you’ve got a series of questions, which is then an invitation for other people to engage with.

G: In your song CSR, there are English, Cantonese and Mandarin lyrics. It reminds me of when I speak to my mother, who is from the mainland but comes from a primarily Cantonese-speaking region. When we speak, sometimes we’ll change from English to Cantonese at the drop of a hat. To me, the quick shifts in language represent the process of having to reconcile differences that can ultimately be quite dynamic.

R: Yeah, totally. Sometimes I think about people who are multilingual and are able to code switch. I don’t know what the neuroscience is behind it, but there is something in our brain that is able to jump between those really quickly and I find that so fascinating. If I had another life, I would definitely study linguistics.

Something that is an everyday thing for me is negotiating two names. Rainbow is part of my birth name, but a lot of Chinese parents give their kid a Chinese name and a Western name. It’s a very colonial way of thinking, thinking that there are people are going to trip over your name because it’s a little difficult to pronounce. But I did grow up as Rainbow, as well as Chunyin, depending on who was talking to me. So when people ask me what my name is, I say “it’s both” and it kinda doesn’t make sense to some people – “how can you be both?” – but I am. So that and the duality of my existence are things I think about on a daily basis.

G: What inspired you to be a mentor for New Age Noise? 

R: I think it’s awesome to have these kinds of programs that give access to people and for it to be a safe space to just be, and to feel like you’re not being judged. It’s a small environment, people are of different skills, and I think the atmosphere is very warm and inviting. I certainly feel like when I started making music there wasn’t as much visibility of female-identifying people in positions of audio engineering or production – those more traditionally “masculine” sort of careers. So I’m really passionate about dismantling those stereotypes and giving power to the next generation of beatmakers and songwriters.

I’m also coming from a different sort of way of thinking about music that isn’t always technical or classical but where’s it’s more about play, exploration and experimentation. I’m not a purist in terms of the gear I use; I think you can make music with a shoe. And showing all these alternate ways of conceptualising what music can be and the processes of coming to that product – that’s why I really enjoy doing New Age Noise workshops with people and expanding conversations about who can make music.

G: I also wanted to ask you about your experience of being a woman of colour, in particular, a visible woman of colour in the local music scene. In Melt, you speak about assimilation as the experience of internalising particular attitudes and views that result in instances where you make yourself smaller to please others. As your East Asian identity is a formative part of your music, what is your relationship with the complexities of “just” talking about your music alongside your presence as one of the few prominent Asian women in Australia’s music scene? How do you negotiate that?

R: I feel like it became something that I had to talk about. At first, it was “I am just making music, I don’t have Asian influences.” Maybe those things weren’t as obvious at the time but it’s become more of a point of interest for me to unpack how those cultural representations of sounds and images are constructed, or re-imagined everytime it gets repeated. I like talking about it because it opens up a conversation for further discussion but it’s also a lot of pressure to be an ambassador. In terms of negotiating those tricky situations, it depends on who’s doing the interviewing as well. If I feel like the team behind the interview is people of colour then I feel like it’s more of a mutual exchange. Is something I’m saying to the person asking the question able to be understood in a way where I don’t have to overexplain things? So I’m more wary of that now.

How do I boil this down simply? I definitely feel like in the past I have been a token booking or a token artist because behind the scenes there weren’t Asian people, women or people of colour to build the infrastructure. I was just the face, so people could just tick off that box and say “cool, we’ve got diversity now.” And what’s cool now is that there are changes in the structure of things, or at least a push to change the structure. So there are diverse people at every level, not just what’s on the surface. And that’s something that still needs to keep growing, but there’s definitely a move towards that.

G: Speaking of that – in terms of not just having lip service to diversity but seeing a fundamental change in the structure behind and in front of the scenes, what efforts have you seen to push Sydney’s music scene towards genuine equity?

R: That’s a big question! To be honest, it’s integral to my everyday that it’s hard to pinpoint one event. Because I’m constantly thinking about what I can do to decolonise or to make my work more accessible in ways that cater for all different types of audiences. Even just making things wheelchair accessible…there are so many things we can do.

G: So it’s more about the attitudes and ethics you value that manifest in your daily lived experience and the way you interact with other people.

R: Yeah. I think there’s the macro way of doing it, whether it’s a campaign to do this, and that can be a little ticking the boxes. But then there’s a lot of micro things we can do on a daily basis and in the types of conversations we’re having and self-reflection on why we’re doing something, what we’re getting out of and how it benefits other people. When I make my work now, I try to think about the audience – not in a way to appease people, but to think about how my work exists in wider socio-political issues and how I can extend this to include as many people as possible.

G: Last question: are there any artists or musicians you’re really excited about at the moment to see where they go?

R: Wytchings [note: Wytchings is a NANC member; at this point, everyone present breaks out into joyous laughter]! It feels unfair to just say one particular person, but I think collectives are really great. So NANC is really awesome – to be more grassroots, put on your own gigs – I think that’s really great. I love Tirzah, she’s really awesome. And I also really like Kelsey Lu!